Shanele Stires (right) led the Mustangs to a 7-12 conference record. Credit: Kayla Stuart | Mustang News, 2023

The Big West Women’s Basketball tournament kicks off on Tuesday, March 7 at the Dollar Loan Center in Henderson, Nevada. 

The tournament consists of every Big West team, excluding UC San Diego, per their Division I reclassification until the 2024-25 season, vying for a conference championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Each of the top six seeds from the Big West regular season will receive a first-round bye and automatically advance to the quarterfinals on Wednesday. So, for the seven through 10 seeds, the quest to the conference championship begins on Tuesday in the first round.

The two favorites heading into the tournament are the top two seeds, UC Irvine (24-5, 16-2) and Long Beach State (22-8, 17-3). Both teams have played well throughout the season and are the only two teams with less than seven losses. 

Despite having more victories, Long Beach State starts out as the No. 2 seed as UC Irvine was forced to cancel two games late in the season due to not having enough available players and both games were ruled “no contests” and did not affect their record. 

Defending champion Hawaii (15-14, 13-7) is also a strong contender, leading the rest of the pack as the third seed. 

Cal Poly (10-17, 7-12) comes into the tournament as the No. 7 seed and will play No. 10 seed UC Riverside (5-25, 3-17) on Tuesday.

“We’re obviously excited to be competing in Henderson — it’s a big opportunity for our team,” head coach Shanele Stires said. “Obviously, it’s a tough call to try and win back-to-back games but that’s what we’re going down there for. We’re just excited to compete and see where we’re at in terms of moving the program forward.”

In their first-round matchup, the Highlanders are led by junior guard Jordan Webster and redshirt junior forward Matehya Bryant. 

The Mustangs defeated them in both matchups during the regular season, but as the saying goes, it is always difficult to beat a team three times in a season. Bryant, in particular, gave the Mustangs trouble in their final regular-season matchup last week, scoring 20 points with nine rebounds.

A key to the first-round match-up may be the interior play of junior forward Natalia Ackerman, as she dominated in last week’s game against UC Riverside, posting 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven blocks. 

The neutral court setting for the contest will be a test for a Mustang team that has struggled away from home throughout this season with a record of 3-9. However, the squad just might be able to bring some Mott Magic to the Dollar Loan Center.

“I think neutral sites elicit a lot of different reactions but the core of the word neutral is that it neutralizes,” Stires said. “You certainly hope that it gives us a level-playing field to compete at a better level.”

In her first season at the helm, Stires has her team adopting her tough, rugged and physical style of play. The Mustangs’ defense-first mentality has shown merit, as Cal Poly has allowed an average of 61.9 points per game to opponents this season.

This is an improvement of over eight points per game from last season’s total of 70.4 points allowed per game.

“We really need to focus on our defense and I think we have one of the best, if not the best defense in the league,” senior guard Maddie Willett said. “If we bring that to each matchup, then we’ll be able to execute and that will fuel us on offense and give us the momentum to win games.”

This defensive mentality has allowed them to build momentum in the second half of the season, despite being hampered by multiple injuries with a shorter rotation heading into the tournament. 

The Mustangs display a balanced effort on offense to complement their strong defense, as no player averages more than double digits on the season. However, each player will be expected to contribute on any given night. 

Stires will rely on the veteran presence of Willett and the expected return of graduate forward Oumou Toure after missing the last two games due to injury. 

The interior presence of Ackerman, the sophomore trio of sharpshooting guard Annika Shah, scrappy point guard Jazzy Anousinh, defensive engine Sydney Bourland and the attacking threat of junior guard Taylor Wu off the bench will all be necessary for a run in the tournament.

The Mustangs have shown that they can compete with any team in the conference this season. If Cal Poly can continue its late-season momentum, winning four of their last six to close the regular season, they may even be threats to contend. 

If Cal Poly gets a first-round victory over UC Riverside, it will lead to a matchup with Long Beach State on Wednesday, March 8. After that, it’s the semifinals on Friday, March 10 and the Championship game on Saturday, March 11.

Though the road may be difficult, history has shown that anything can happen in March.